This week is halfway between two events: Last Wednesday's fifth anniversary of the signing of the welfare reform law and next Monday's recognition of Labor Day. As Congress begins its debate on the reauthorization of welfare reform, we need to understand that those two days are really one in their celebration of the importance of work.
President Bush understands this. From several mid-'90s conversations about poverty-fighting with him, I remember his sense that people, whether rich or poor, need to build self-esteem not by accepting flattery but by succeeding on a job. Bush before 1989 had money and connections, but success as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers was crucial to his sense of making it on his own.
The number of dollars involved is different, but former welfare moms sounded Bush-like early this month at a Washington, D.C., forum. Elizabeth Jones, now a police officer, said that "making the transition from welfare to work hasn't been easy, (but) I want my children to grow up with dignity." Former welfare mom Lou Ann Cataneo said similarly: "I want to be productive and I want to be responsible. And I've accomplished that."
Such comments aren't unusual -- I've heard them hundreds of times across the country -- except for the venue. The ex-welfarists were speaking at the liberal Brookings Institution, and liberal policy wonks nodded their heads as Norma Costa of Miami remembered her "first day at work as one of the happiest moments of my life." She spoke of "feeling satisfaction after each task that I completed, and after each skill that I gained."
Wendell Primus, who resigned his Clinton administration post in 1996 to protest that year's welfare reform, honestly admitted earlier this month that "welfare reform is working better than I thought it would. ... The sky isn't falling anymore. Whatever we have been doing over the last five years, we ought to keep going."
Indeed we should. In the past five years, as welfare rolls have been cut in half, employment among the poor has jumped. A good economy during most of that period helped, but welfare rolls actually increased during other economic good times. This time, welfare reform itself was responsible for more than 60 percent of the rise of employment among single moms, according to careful studies, and 83 percent of the rise among black single mothers.
Has income itself increased sharply? No -- and that's a blot on the record, according to liberals. One study showed that the poorest 40 percent of single-mother families increased their earnings by about $2,300 per family on average between 1995 and 1999, but disposable income increased by only $300 on average, because the families were losing some welfare benefits in the process.
Maybe the law needs to be tweaked a bit so that initial earnings will increase faster, but three questions need emphasis. First, what will happen to the income of former welfare moms over the next five, 10 or 20 years? It takes time for habits to change so that people used to welfare become accustomed to business. It takes time to advance on the job from entry level to management. It's good that those who have gone to work have a little more money than they used to have, but the big gains are still ahead.
Second, how can people who are better off help the poor and struggling? Here's where aid that is challenging, personal and often spiritual is vital. It's hard to stay on the job when cars break down and kids get sick, and there's no spouse to help out. During high-stress times, the availability of a mentor/friend can make all the difference.
A third question is also essential: Do the former welfare moms, and their children, gain a sense of accomplishment? The Brookings discussion (and my own interviewing) suggests that most do. If that evidence holds up, the reckoning Congress does over the next year should parallel that of the oft-used credit card commercial: Total up the costs, but conclude that some things are priceless.